Choices for a perfect world

I had to smile when I came across this meme.

I was raised and loved mathematics, having been taught the bottom way. I still think that way. I know that this iteration of the “new math” works in the top way. The mathematics geek in me could actually write the above as equations and generate a proof for why it’s correct.

The bottom speaks for the reality of many parents who are working with their children at home during these times. Yes, it was heavy duty home schooling for a while and the pseudo-return to normal classes has a bit of normalcy to it. But it’s just not the same.

Beyond generating a smile, you have to feel for those parents who have to deal with curriculum support at home sans the two years of education at a Faculty of Education, the ongoing professional learning events, the new approaches to teaching and learning, and things that educators take for granted these days – manipulatives.

Today’s Ontario classrooms have a great deal of access to resources and support for learning. Yes, there are differences between schools and districts based on priorities but there’s so much there that we truly are light years ahead from when I went to school.

Many times, when you go to provincial learning events, some of the sessions actually look like trade shows. Great teachers are often demonstrating some of the latest and greatest that they’ve got in their classroom. They show how they can be used to address expectations and everyone gets excited – until they return to their classrooms and realize that they don’t have access to the same sorts of things.

My best context for this, of course, is educational technology. The premier event for a number of years as been the Bring IT, Together Conference and it’s the best/worst for doing this. There typically is a fabulous space for exhibitors to show what you need to be lobbying for in the next round of purchases of “stuff” for your classroom. There’s the Minds on Media area where teachers are showing off what they’re doing with the latest and greatest. I always walk away lusting after things to play with – robots, virtual reality, etc. And, then there’s the sessions themselves where you get to hear the complete story for 50 minutes and walk away realizing that you don’t have the same resources when you return to your educational “home”.

Sadly, there’s the actual home where parents and brothers and sisters have been picking up a second profession as occasional teacher. Programming / coding has seen a huge rise in popularity in education recently and it’s deservedly so.

But, it’s not my programming.

I learned the old fashioned way. I programmed a computing device and got excited with a correct display of results on the display or on a printed sheet of paper. Cooking with gas as my father-in-law would say.

Things changed when Seymour Papert introduced the Logo programming language which you could use to program a robot that drew on a sheet of paper with the pendown command. Inspired by this and the desire to introduce programming to younger and younger students, we’ve seen a flood of other devices on the market, marketed to education. Probably the most popular? is the LEGO Logo program but that’s just the tip of the iceberg for programmable devices that connect to your computer. Another very popular option that you can build a program around is the micro:bit which is a bit of an oddity since you can program a virtual micro-bit just as well as a physical one.

So, what does this all have to do with the parent at home?

Imagine being a student in a classroom where everything you’re doing is based upon having access to those manipulatives. Then, the rug is pulled out from underneath you. Class has to go on – but how? In particular, I’m thinking of the new, revised Mathematics curriculum which supposedly will feature coding. Imagine being the student who was excited that she could get this device at school to do exactly what it is that she wants it to. Now at home, unless Mom and Dad have the ability to run out to an educational store and buy it, you’re left with a Plan B. What does that Plan B even look like?

I’ve been following along a discussion in the ACSE discussion list of teachers dealing with secondary school student learning programming, typically in Python, and the challenges there. At school, all the computers would be configured for the learning. At home, students have a mish-mash of computers with some even having Chromebooks or have borrowed a Chromebook from school. As we know, typically the school devices are locked down so the workaround of installing an editor into Chrome OS’ flavour of Linux isn’t an option.

There’s no criticism to be assigned here. In no case is anyone taking a shortcut on the curriculum. They’re using what they have at their fingertips. Nobody saw the disaster that the past two school years are enduring. Nobody could predict that the Education Minister is considering options for more home learning.

Right now, teachers and struggling just to stay above water. Hopefully, those at the system level are aware of all these challenges and the potential impact on the future. When we get through this – who knows when – there needs to be some serious thinking and planning done. Teachers are great at Plan Bs. You do it all the time for occasional teachers or coverages. But when it comes to a rejig of an entire unit or course, it gets real.

At the system level, years of planning have gone into equity of access for things that happen in the classroom. We’ve always given lip service to equity at home but if anything the pandemic has taught us, it hasn’t been nearly enough.

Published by dougpete

The content of this blog is generated by whatever strikes my fancy at any given point. It might be computers, weather, political, or something else in nature. I experiment and comment a lot on things so don't take anything here too seriously; I might change my mind a day later but what you read is my thought and opinion at the time I wrote it! My personal website is at: Follow me on Twitter: I'm bookmarking things at:

7 thoughts on “Choices for a perfect world

  1. The kindergarten teacher in me is thinking that now is the perfect time for a home session on “loose parts.” If ever there was a need to look at what around the house or outside could be used as math manipulatives, it might be now. I wonder if there are options for all grades. I’m also starting to wonder if there’s a list online with suggestions. I need to take a look.


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  2. Good morning Doug!

    You’ve touched on a number of different things in this post, and so my comment will probably wander around a little bit before coming up with a core response.

    With regards to “new math“ and the traditional algorithm that we were all taught from multiplication back in the day, I see the intent being to recognize that there are people for whom the algorithm “does not click,”and that telling them to just use it, it works, doesn’t respect the fact that they could understand conceptually what’s going on through another model. The traditional multiplication algorithm abstracts the process of multiplying for the sake of expediency. A lot of schooling tends in this direction – sacrificing comprehension for the purposes of getting people to the point where they can function as a technologist in the various subject areas that school has been artificially broken up into.

    There’s no doubt that different approaches to providing access to learning opportunities appear at conferences like the #BIT Bring IT, Together! events. Yes, there are the vendors in the exhibit area who have technology and resources to help. Yes, there are classroom educators presenting what has worked for them in the core sessions. And as you reference, for a good number of years there has been a collected experience of the minds on media which takes more of a smorgasbord approach and provides a context within which educators are encouraged to pick and choose what might work for their learners. If we were to slide those three experiences onto a spectrum, then broadly speaking the vendor/exhibitor experiences are to a certain extent prepackaged/off-the-shelf and require a degree of board level investment and in-service, the core sessions provide case studies based on what works for certain educators, and the Minds on Media promotes more of a “build what works for you as a learner” mindset.

    Again, these three different approaches are all valid, and within the scope of the #BIT range of audiences, are all appropriate. There are definitely board level people who are looking for programs to implement throughout their district. There are consultants and educators who are looking for strategies that have worked elsewhere. and there are frontline educators who are ready to act on their own without necessarily having, or needing, a system level implementation before they can begin.

    There’s no doubt that the pandemic has disrupted the “organized“ learning experience that modern society has farmed out to schools and professional educators. Such is the nature of having everything broken up into discrete components: We obtain our food from supermarkets rather than growing it, we purchase what we need rather than building it, and we turn to people who have experience in very specific areas for each of the very specific needs we encounter in our lives. When the pandemic disrupt education, and appropriate measures and resources are not in place to support the professionals, then parents have to fill-in.

    When you raise the issue of parents not having access to the various technologies that may or may not exist in their children’s classrooms, part of me recognizes that an awful lot of the coding/programming learning that we want to happen IS available as web-based format through a web browser. I have spent many hours since things changed a year ago helping kids with online programming tools – Scratch, the virtual microbit that exists in MakeCode, the virtual worlds that exist in Minecraft with MakeCode, a variety of online Python platforms, etc. Teaching all of the coding expectations that currently exist in the Grade 1-8 math curriculum can be done without anything more than a web browser and an Internet connection. Sure, things can be extended into the physical computing realm if you have an actual $25 micro:bit (or, now, a raspberry pi Pico, which retails for CDN$5.99), and there are plenty of online resources if you go looking for them.

    One of the key challenges, as I see it, (and this is where I will cycle back to the initial metaphor of how we teach multiplication – – through understanding, or through the shortcut algorithm) is that too many kids get to the end of their schooling not having achieved full comprehension because things move at a pace that requires them to resort to the algorithm, rather than understanding. This is a microcosm of our larger society, in which people achieve capability in certain areas through training and focus, but are not required to have the facility to undertake new things quickly and easily. In other words, our education system is not developing as many “true learners“ as be needed during emergency situations such as a pandemic – – if other parts of the puzzle are not functioning (the government is not providing clear direction and resources to educators, educators are relying on their school boards to provide them with the resources to enact only what the board asks for, and students are not learning to be learners themselves and take charge of their own learning) then the system breaks down and challenges ensue.

    I think I’ve commented before about the Papert quote that I’ve had on the back of a number of ECOO and other T-shirts for a number of years, “I am convinced that the best learning takes place when the learner takes charge.“ if we wait for someone to “train us,” or provide us with the resources that they want us to use, then we are dependent upon those external sources to keep things going.


  3. This is the first time in many years when I’ve had student arrive knowing the algorithm. It’s been a different experience for sure!


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